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ESF Graduate At Work On Gulf Disaster

Melanie Driscoll works for the Louisiana Audubon Society

Melanie Driscoll is becoming all too familiar with the nuts and bolts of dealing with a natural disaster. The 2001 SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) graduate arrived in Baton Rouge to start her new job as director of Bird Conservation for the Louisiana Audubon Society just in time for Hurricane Katrina.

Four and a half years later, Driscoll is back to working 20-hour days trying to mitigate what many expect may be an even worse ecological disaster: millions of gallons of oil pouring out of a British Petroleum deepwater well 45 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion that killed 11 workers.

Katrina destroyed more than half the bird nesting areas on the barrier islands and flooding laid waste to extensive areas of marsh, which is already disappearing at a rapid rate because of water diversion by dams along the Mississippi River.

Now, the millions of gallons of oil in the water are beginning to reach fragile coastlines from Texas to Florida. The most dramatic pictures are of pelicans and other birds covered in oil and facing a near-certain death.

Driscoll said, "It will be even worse if substantial amounts of oil invade the bird habitat. If we can save the habitat we can save the birds." One worst-case scenario she is contemplating is a fishery collapse and the chain reaction that would follow.

Much of Driscoll's work so far has involved creating a Volunteer Response Center to organize the efforts of all the people who want to help so the right people are being used in the right areas, matching up expertise, coordinating the surveillance of beaches and marsh for signs that the oil has arrived and preventing duplication of effort.

Driscoll earned her M.S. from ESF in 2001. Her thesis was in biology habitat fragmentation and its effect on wood thrushes. Prior to joining the Louisiana Audubon Society, Driscoll was with the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.